Speaker of the House John Boehner recently returned from Iraq with the message that he would support keeping some U.S. troops in Iraq after December 2011. While this surely reflects what he heard from the American officials he saw in Baghdad, it distracts attention from a more important question about the future U.S. relationship with Iraq in the primary area where Rep. Boehner could actually help: halting short-sighted plans to slash the State Department budget which could cripple the civilian mission to Iraq at an exceptionally delicate transitional moment.
Rep. Boehner can not control whether Iraq requests a new SOFA to allow troops to stay. In fact, keeping a small number of U.S. troops in Iraq is not the most important issue for the future American role in Iraq, and the trends in Iraqi politics make it increasingly unlikely that the long-expected request to renegotiate the Status of Forces Agreement will be forthcoming regardless of what Americans want. But Congress does have a decisive role in determining whether to support and fund the civilian mission in Iraq. Rep. Boehner can do virtually nothing about whether or not Iraqis decide to request a renegotiation of the SOFA, but he can work to ensure that Congress funds the civilian part of American foreign policy which are so urgently needed at this historical moment. He should.
It is understandable why the question of whether U.S. troops will stay in Iraq dominates what remains of the debate about Iraq, but it really shouldn't. I don't think that a few thousand U.S. troops remaining in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government would be that big a deal -- the removal of 140,000 troops would satisfy the Obama campaign's commitment to withdraw, and the clear commitment to that withdrawal has already had the necessary effect on reshaping Iraqi politics. The Pentagon has long thought that a small residual force would be a safety blanket against a resurgence of civil war, provide necessary logistical support and training, and signal continued U.S. commitment. There's just a world of difference between a few thousand American trainers and the kind of eternal, large-scale troop presence which used to be proposed.
The U.S. assumption that eventually Iraqi politicians would step up and ask for an extension always seemed to ignore the importance of the political obstacles posed by hostile public opinion. Whatever private support for a longer-term U.S. role exists among Iraqi politicians (and I've heard a fair amount of it), that never extended to public discourse or public opinion. Electoral incentives and the importance of public opinion meant that virtually no politicians have been willing to publicly support revisiting the SOFA -- an important lesson to those trying to understand the likely effects of the changes in Egypt and the region on their foreign policy. The growing power of public opinion and protest movements certainly won't make Iraqi politicans any more willing to broach such a controversial subject.
If the SOFA is not renegotiated, and no other workaround is found, then the U.S. will have to withdraw all of its troops from Iraq by December 31, 2011 just as promised. Frankly, I don't think that the presence of U.S. troops is really a decisive strategic factor anymore. Iraqi security forces have long-since taken the lead role, and despite the ongoing assassinations and explosions and general violence there have been few signs of a return to civil war dynamics. Similarly, as expected, the Iraqi political system has eventually found its own balance as it has adapted to the declining American role -- not an especially attractive political balance,with many enduring issues surrounding the centralization of power and inefficient services and power-sharing and unfilled top government jobs and more, but reasonably robust (I keep hearing Iraqis jokingly brag about how they now have the most stable politics in the region).
Iraq is slowly evolving into a position to be a player in regional politics, rather than an arena where others wage their proxy wars. Whether that Iraq becomes an effective, independent partner of the United States or develops an alliance with Iran, and how Iraq relates to its Arab neighbors, are among the most crucial variables shaping the the future regional order in the Middle East -- as important as consolidating Egyptian democracy or the Iranian nuclear program. There will be powerful forces pulling Iraq towards Iran, including not only religious ties but also economic interests and personal relationships. Rising sectarianism across the region fueled by the Saudi crackdown in Bahrain risks pushing it ever further from the Arab states in the Gulf; it is alarming to see Allawi's Saudi-backed Iraqiyya list denouncing Kuwait as "an enemy of the Iraqi people and its new democratic system".
As it becomes more of an independent actor, Iraq's foreign policy, like that of the new Egypt or of Erdogan's Turkey, will be strategic and interest-based but also responsive to public opinion. The U.S. needs to build enduring relationships and engage across all sectors of political society if it hopes to deal effectively with this new Iraq. The civilian side of the U.S. foreign policy machine has never been more important across the entire Middle East: understanding and engaging newly empowered publics, building connections with emergent civil society movements, partnering on economic development projects,supporting police training and rule of law development. And that requires thinking past the military mission and devoting adequate resources to the civilian sector --- something which Secretary Gates and the U.S. military clearly understand, but which Congress still seemingly does not. If Rep. Boehner wants to help Iraq and the U.S. engagement in the broader Middle East, this is where he should turn his attention.